Schedules are crowded these days, and most of our kids have their days structured from bedtime to bedtime. It’s easy to forget the power of just hanging out together. I had a strong reminder of that point recently. These days, my husband and I are taking a break from foster care in favor of mentoring young adults who have aged out of the foster care system. During a recent visit, our mentee asked to go to a cafe that caters to tabletop gamers. We have no experience with tabletop gaming, and no real interest in learning the genre. But we cheerfully agreed to the request, and the trip turned out to be a great bonding experience for all of us.
The evening gave us a chance to watch our mentee in action and to learn about preferences and habits. The evening also gave our mentee a chance to teach us something and to gain some confidence in the relationship. On both sides, we were able to simply concentrate on talking to and learning about each other.
The experience reminded me how much we need to find ways to spend unstructured time with our kids. Needless to say, “unstructured” also means electronics-free, because screens isolate us from each other. Unstructured time is space that we carve out of our schedules with no other obligations, no agenda, and no electronic cocoon.
A family game night is a good example of unstructured time. It gives everyone something to do, but it’s not an isolating experience like smart phones. Game rules give a topic for conversation, but they leave plenty of time for other discussions as well. Road trips can be another good time for good conversations. If you can get your kids to turn off their phones for part of the trip, you can have good conversations with them. I always found that I had my deepest discussions with my kids when they were trapped in the car with nothing else to do but talk to me.
Just hanging out can build our relationships in several important ways. First, it allows us to concentrate on each other. Our lives are filled with all sorts of things to do and places to be. Those tasks aren’t bad and they often are necessary. But they don’t leave us much time to talk to and learn from our kids. Just as couples need to take some time to concentrate on each other, we need to do the same for our relationships with our kids.
Second, hanging out with our kids can help them feel more secure. It reassures them that they are important to you. It also can increase self-esteem and self-worth. We know that positive attention increases kids’ confidence, and that confidence increases success, which in turn increases self-esteem. By spending unstructured time with them, then, we are setting in motion a series of positive steps for our kids.
Finally, unstructured time increases our kids’ sense of responsibility. With no electronic crutches, they have to come up with conversation. They develop ownership of the time and their actions. It’s not only good practice for them in talking to adults, but it’s also good practice for them to learn how to use their time constructively.
I know that kids don’t always want to hang out with us, and they certainly may not understand how the time can help them. Nevertheless, if we can work past their reluctance and engage them in just hanging out together, we can do a lot to strengthen our relationships with them. So, once in a while, scrap your to-do list and spend some time hanging out with your kids. You’ll be surprised at what they can teach you and how your relationship benefits.